Obituary: Dame Margaret Miles
Saturday 30 April 1994
MARGARET MILES was the quintessential British headmistress in the Great Girls School tradition of the 19th century. Miss Beale and Miss Buss would have recognised her instantly: stout of shoe, bobbed of hair, square of face, and sensibly suited at all times, as she worked her way through the first half of her life at a succession of girls' private schools and grammar schools, teaching history - cheerful, enthusiastic, insistent that everyone was capable of achieving well.
Her own early education had been in the same tradition at a Girls' Public Day School Trust (GPDST) school in Ipswich, where her father was one of the local clergy. For a short period in the Second World War she moved to lecturing in education at Bristol University, but within two years was back in a Cheltenham grammar school as headmistress, for Margaret Miles loved running schools more than teaching others to run them. She also realised that in order to make a contribution to theory, practice was the qualification that counted most. That is why her later writing like And Gladly Teach (1965) was so authoritative.
Whether by then - at the start of the 1960s - she suspected that the second half of her life was going to be different from that of the then traditional headmistress, who stayed in post until retirement, no one knows. But Margaret Miles was an ambitious woman - not for herself but for the causes in which she believed; and it was in her final post that she found the educational cause that came to matter most to her. She became headmistress of one of the new breed of schools called 'comprehensive', a large girls' school in Putney, south London, called Mayfield.
It was from this point onward that she proved herself in the true Beale and Buss mould, for like them, she found her pioneering work in this school and on behalf of others like it, was assailed on many sides by traditionalists in education and society at large, including those from the educational world in which she had started.
The fight for the comprehensive principle was long and hard, but Miles entered into it with relish. Her faith in such schools, which came from seeing the difference it made when the system assumed everyone should have an equal chance to learn, made her indispensable to the generation that inaugurated the comprehensive education reform in the 1960s.
Early on she joined with parents and other teachers who had organised the national Campaign for Comprehensive Education, later contributing written advice in her book Comprehensive Schooling, Problems and Perspectives (1968). However, unlike so many who hopped aboard that early bandwagon, she remained a committed member till the end. At her death she was President of the campaign's present incarnation, the Right to a Comprehensive Education (RICE), whose work she continued to encourage even when her health meant she no longer attended meetings.
Throughout this second half of her life she was always ready to write, to speak, to debate and on one occasion, to be the star of a half- hour television programme which sought to turn the image of comprehensive schooling from one of controversy to one of acceptance as the common experience of most British young people, as it is today for 85 per cent of them. The only occasion on which she ever appeared ill at ease was talking direct to television cameras. She liked to see those to whom she spoke.
Miles's competence and intellectual assurance soon brought others searching her out for membership: of national advisory bodies on the training of teachers and on broadcasting (both BBC and ITA) as well as of the councils of the Royal Society of Arts and the British Association. By the 1970s she had gone international as chair of the Ministry of Overseas Development's advisory council on development education and then as a member of the Education Committee of the UK's Unesco Commission, whose meetings she often chaired.
She was a born chairperson: authoritative but pragmatic, always cutting through the verbiage to the point in hand with wit and the commodity she made her trademark: common sense. All the causes that gained her commitment: world development, the United Nations, as well as her own socialist politics, grew out of dedication to what was obviously sensible, as well as what was necessary for humanity.
Nor did her radicalism wane as she aged, as for example, when a report on the age of consent was published (to whose working party she had contributed) and she said that, except for making sure the police could prosecute the rare villain, fixing a legal age of consent was an utter irrelevance when it came to supporting girls in our society.
The last phase of Miles's life was her move back to Wales, where her mother's family came from, to enjoy the rural scene and pursue her lifelong passion, golf. Though well into her seventies, she nevertheless started education anew - insisting on learning passable Welsh, as well as chairing her local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales.
The two pioneering institutions with which she was so closely associated - Bedford College, London University, of which she was a graduate and which later gave her one of her honorary doctorates, and Mayfield Comprehensive School - have both been wiped off the educational map by a new age of rationalisation and privatisation, but for women like Margaret Miles the world's growing commitment to full and equal education for people of every attainment and every land, but especially for girls and women, remains the better memorial.
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